Ski Chamonix – A Guide for First-Timers
Chamonix, or Cham (pronounced “Sham” if you’re an American), is to skiing what Fenway Park is to baseball. There’s no ski area in the world that has the high profile of Chamonix, and for good reason: the terrain, town and general vibe of the valley is completely different from anything else in the world of winter sports. It’s beautiful, it’s extreme, and it’s a melting pot of cultures from around the ski world. Individually, any of these elements would make Chamonix worth the visit, but it’s the combination of factors that make the north side of Mont Blanc something truly special.
Looking down on Chamonix from Brevent-Flégère
However, like anything that’s worth doing, there’s some due diligence that needs to happen before you go booking it to the epicenter of winter sports culture. The aura of the destination itself can be overwhelming, but like any other trip, it’s just a matter of breaking down the different pieces of the puzzle. Yes, it’s intimidating, but regardless of what anyone says, it’s just another ski area, and you’re just another skier.
Before you go
Fly into Geneva and take a shuttle with Alpybus, Mountain Drop-offs, ChamVan, which can be organized in advance or at the airport. Renting a car is an option, but isn’t necessary if you plan on just being in Chamonix. While Chamonix’s bus system isn’t winning any awards, it’s sufficient for everywhere you’ll want to go in the valley.
While a visa isn’t required for US citizens, your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond your scheduled departure. Don’t get caught at the airport with a passport that expires one month after you get back—it’s no fun to be that person.
Beyond your standard ski gear, throw in a mountaineering harness if you have one for travel on glaciated terrain. As for other equipment, it’s a personal call based on your objectives for the trip. Just because you’re going to Chamonix doesn’t mean you need to buy an excessive amount of gear unless you truly plan (and know how) to use it.
Just don’t underestimate the importance of having a functioning cell phone for emergency purposes. Even if you don’t buy an international plan, figure out before hand if your phone works on European networks and can get you out of a pinch.
The Greater Chamonix Area
Outside of beginner slopes, there are three main areas in the immediate vicinity to Chamonix, each with its own merits, plus Le Tour/Vallorcine and Les Houches short drives away. With the exception of L’Aiguille du Midi, each area has manageable terrain for first-timers to Chamonix. That said, each area also has its share of off-piste hazards that require a certain amount of local knowledge to manage. Chamonix is about the last place in the world you want to blindly follow tracks to explore.
The nearest pistes to town center, Brevent-Flégère offers an elaborate network of lifts and cable cars that access sun-soaked, alpine terrain. Additionally, when there’s enough snow and stability, the lower mountain serves up some amazing tree skiing. This area is probably your best bet to get acquainted with the layout of Chamonix. As an extra bonus, hire a guide for some easy backcountry hits if the conditions line up.
Les Grands Montets (1235-3300m)
A short bus ride from Chamonix, Les Grands Montets offers similar alpine-style terrain, with numerous off-piste and backcountry options. The main attraction of this area is the top Grans Montets cable car, which can require a reservation (it also has a standby line). This top cable car accesses several thousand feet of off-piste skiing as well as some classic backcountry areas. Be warned, however, that crowds can be overwhelming on bluebird days.
Sidecountry shredding off of Les Grands Montets
L’Aiguille du Midi/La Vallée Blanche (1030-3842m)
L’Aiguille du Midi, the cable car that accesses La Vallée Blanche is worth the ride in itself, even if you don’t plan on skiing off the top. The top cable car station is arguably the world’s most exposed, and the walk down to the snow is as puckering as many ski areas’ most difficult runs. If you’re unfamiliar with the area, get a guide (it’s worth it): the hazards are numerous and ever-changing off of the Midi. That said, the runs and views are spectacular and a trip to Chamonix isn’t complete without at least a ride up. The terrain is heavily glaciated; so don’t forget glacier gear (and the know-how that comes along with carrying it).
Dropping into the Vallée Blanche off the Midi
Get a Guide
Beyond getting better shredding, a guide aids with safety if you want to get on any bigger terrain. Set your ego aside and let someone else show you the ropes (no pun intended). No matter how good of a skier you are, there are just some areas that you’re better off not trying to figure out on your own.
Where to Stay
Located pretty much in the center of town, Grand Hôtel des Alpes keeps it classy. Their après ski snack bar in the lobby alone is worth the stay.
A short walk to Brevent, Hotel Alpina offers modest sized rooms and includes a proper breakfast, with eggs, bacon and sausage, rather than the French-standard of dried meats, cheese and bread.
With a little more local flavor, Vert Hotel has everything–rooms, food, bar and a ski shop–for a reasonable price. Located a little out of town, this hotel has a bit more of a ski bum atmosphere and caters to those who are there to shred.
Where to Eat
Early afternoon snacks and drinks at L’Adret de la Flégère
With sushi, seafood and local specials, Le Cap-Horn is the call if you’re feeling like you haven’t spent enough money. While on the pricey end, it’s worth it if you have the coin.
If pizza is your jam, Casa Valerio is the call. Serving up authentic Italian cuisine, Casa doesn’t disappoint and wont break the bank.
As far as amount of food per Euro spent goes, it’s hard to do better in Chamonix than Midnight Express. The sandwich shop located in the town center has over 60 grinds to choose from, plus it’s open late in case you have some post-partying munchies.
Where to Party
On the mellower side of the après scene, Elevation 1904 serves up reasonably priced beers and a prime location to discuss how rad you got that day. But don’t speak too loudly, because in all likelihood someone in there got far radder than you.
Right off of the central square, La Terrasse has two floors of partying, with live music on the ground floor and more of a lounge atmosphere on the second floor. Depending on the night and type of music, the scene can be very different.
While I’m a firm believer that nothing good happens after 1 a.m., particularly on ski trips, there’s no shortage of shenanigans you can get into in Chamonix, if that’s your style. Open every night from 1:00 until dawn, L’Amnesia is the call if it’s definitely going to be a down day the next day.
Beyond one of the finest adventures that the world of skiing has to offer, a trip to Chamonix might just change your life, as it has many people’s. It’s not just seeing the mountains firsthand that’s impressive, it’s seeing what’s possible in the mountains that’s truly stunning. And even if you don’t leave there an aspiring mountaineer, it will forever change the way that you look at the mountains.